Monday, March 12, 2007

On the Pet Shop Boys; and notes on insularity

While writing a mini-review of the Pet Shop Boys’ 1990 album Behaviour for India Uncut’s Rave Out, I came across a very pleasing bit of trivia: Axl Rose, the Guns 'n Roses frontman, was a Pet Shop Boys fan and credited their song “My October Symphony” as an inspiration for “November Rain”.

Now Rose’s opinions and tastes aren’t of personal importance to me (though I admired a lot of his work as singer/lyricist), but what a happy testament this is to the power of great music to break through the walls of insularity. Here’s a case of influences travelling so far that the foul-mouthed frontman of a scabrous hard-rock band could appreciate the work of a genteel British pop duo whose stock in trade was lush synthesizer-dominated melodies. (Could there be a greater contrast between two bands? And not to make too fine a point of it, but Rose is by most accounts homophobic – while much of PSB’s best work hinges on the experience of being gay in the Thatcher era.)

Anyway, Jabberwock khush hua at this minor blow for inclusiveness. I have very wide-ranging tastes in books, films and music and am often surprised by how keen people are to closet themselves off by pre-defining their tastes – this is the kind of stuff I like and this is what I don’t like, and no extending the line please – so that even if there’s a chance that they might grow to appreciate something over time, they’ve already limited their vision. (It frequently happens that someone remarks, “Oh, you like Author A/Director A and Author B/Director B as well? That’s strange! It’s normally one or the other.”)

In the context of music, I know many people who say they can’t stand pop/romantic ballads/what-have-you, thus placing an entire genre outside their ambit; naturally this disallows the examination of an individual work on its own terms without bothering about what category it belongs to. Effectively, you erect a mental barrier for yourself and then your ego puts you in a position where it’s impossible to even peek over the fence. Standing adamantly by your “worldview” becomes more important than opening yourself to a new experience that might just prove to be rewarding.

(And yes, this applies to many other things too, but that’s for another discussion.)

Quick note about my love for the Pet Shop Boys’ music, which I discovered in 1992 when cable TV had just come in and videos from their album Very were being aired on MTV. I bought the album but within a few days my favourite songs weren’t the popular singles (“Can You Forgive Her” and the Village People cover “Go West”) but the ones no one else knew about: “Dreaming of the Queen”, “The Theatre” and “Young Offender”. I loved the gentleness of these tracks, the distinct melodies, the disciplined stillness of Neil Tennant’s voice (which would make his sporadic displays of vulnerability, or his occasional clowning about, so much more effective) …and the lyrics, some of which were very simple in keeping with the requirements of this sort of music, but some that cut deep.

Over the next few weeks I devoured all of PSB’s earlier albums. As a very lonely youngster who felt like an outsider in most groups, I was drawn to their more introspective work, and this is telling, because at the time I knew hardly anything about the subtext of their music – about the more oblique references in some of their lyrics, for instance. For all I knew, there was no difference between the Pet Shop Boys and the regular “boy-bands” of the early 1990s, such as Take That and East 17. But I felt an instinctive kinship with their reflective songs: the languorous “Being Boring”, about misspent youth, and the passing of old friends (having heard this song over 15 years, I think it comes to mean more as the listener gets older); the delicate ballad “Nervously” (a song that resonated strongly with the very shy adolescent I was); and the relatively fast-paced “Left to My Own Devices” with its references to a child who creates his own worlds at the back of his garden (the album, appropriately titled Introspective, featured another song called “I Want a Dog”, the lyrics of which I strongly disagreed with: Don’t want a cat,/Giving no love and getting fat/Oh, (oh oh) you can get lonely/And a cat’s no help with that).

There were many other songs, too many to list here. Incidentally, it was in those glorious MTV-influenced years, 1992-93, that I realised my interest lay more in entire albums than in singles. Singles are useful as an entry point – helping you discover a new band or album in the first place – but once that bit of business has been achieved I relish exploring the whole work and mining the less-known songs on it, the ones that don’t make it to radioplay or get turned into music videos. The Pet Shop Boys did a lot to stoke this interest – there isn’t a song on their 12 albums (not counting the B-side compilations or occasional special remixes) that I can’t hum the tune of at a moment’s notice. (Of course, in the months that followed, I developed similar obsessions for the work of other, very different bands, starting with REM, Aerosmith and Stone Temple Pilots. More on that some other time.)


  1. Insularity comes with being "hep". Not their fault, "mental hepatitis" does it all.

  2. Is it true that they did a cover of "where the streets have no name" and U2 responded with- "What have we done to deserve this?"
    Disclaimer:My memory can be playing tricks on me.
    I love a lot of their music..but "West End Girls", "Domino Dancing" and their cover of "Always on my mind" are special to me.

  3. Rahul: yes, that's true. The PSB version of "Where the streets..." (which they combined with "Can't take my eyes off you") isn't a personal favourite, but it was a hip, tongue-in-cheek adaptation of a popular rock song.

  4. I love the PSB. I was thinking about writing a mini review and post it on my blog...

    See you,


  5. Whether PSB are homosexual or Rose is homophobic becomes irrelevant in the language of musical expression. The only boundaries and prejudices in music are the ones you force upon it yourself. The fact that Rose was a fan of PSB does not surprise me, and I would guess that PSB found appreciation in GNR as well. Both expressed their souls within their music - and true musicians will always recognize and appreciate that, regardless of the corporate label assigned to the music.

  6. A couple of comments.

    The whole homophobia part brings to mind the glorious day when that icon of skinheads everywhere, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, came out of the closet.

    As to GnR and PSB. I know enough hard rock/metal types who love electronic music and vice versa. There is a reason Trent Reznor records what he does. He draws from both.

  7. I searched for 'being boring' after reading your post and it took me to a Wendy Cope poem -

    I guess you might enjoy it too.
    Thanks, and I think I'll get back to the Pet Shop Boys lyrics later because I am relishing the poem at the moment.

  8. Neha: thanks. But it probably isn't a good idea to just read the PSB lyrics the way you would a poem. I can tell you now, most of them would seem insipid and Grade 2ish if you did that; that's why I didn't link to any lyrics site. For them to have any sort of impact, they need to be heard in accompaniment with the music (that's true of most songs anyway, even the ones written by people like Leonard Cohen).

  9. Sure there's a weird homophobic strain running through the hair metal tradition, and there might be any number of things I don't know about Axl Rose, but to the best of my understanding the popular conception that he's a homophobe is grounded in the lyrics to the song "One in a Million," in which he tosses around a variety of epithets offensive to a variety of groups. My interpretation of the song is that it's a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the stereotypical boorish American redneck-- not the views of anyone in the band. Axl's shared stage-time with Elton John since that song's appearance, hugging the man vigorously, if that means anything.

  10. Anon: interesting you mention GNR's "One in a Million", since that's also the title of a Pet Shop Boys song (from Very) that may very well have been a riposte of sorts.

    And you're probably right about Rose not being seriously homophobic. He also went backstage after a PSB concert to tell Tennant and Lowe how much he liked Behaviour.

  11. GnR and Nirvana basically single-handedly (ok double-handedly) saved rock (Poison/Twisted Sister/White Lion etc. etc., anyone?) I think Rose's lyrics resonated with an audience of frustrated not-so-rich whites who had lacked a voice before. Funny how when gangsta rap broke out with all its hate, that was cool cause it was a new way for the disenfranchised to express their rage. Of course not-so-rich white folk are just supposed to take it and like it, I guess. Also, One in a Million famously used the "n" word--Slash, of course, is half black. I think they usual suspects who started hyperventilating when the song first came out were perhaps being a little bit silly and demonstrating a series lack of any sense of irony. PnP I don't know aside from "you've got the looks I've got the brains (if that's actually what the song is called)" and "West End girls." Both good tunes, IMHO.

  12. I always thought the Communards really put it on the table.
    Their music gives "dancing alone" a whole new legitimacy.

  13. Funny that Neale should mention Communards, I was just going to say how much I loved them too.

    I got horribly on a flight from JFK to BRU (on a tiny bottle of Belgian wine that hit me like a ton of bricks), and the flight from BRU to LHR is a total blur, but i do remember being on the bus into the city centre and hearing "So Cold the Night" on my Walkman/radio and being blown away. Next day, when the effects of said vino wore off, I was like a woman possessed to find out what the name of the song was and buy it immediately.

    On the subject of putting musicians into silos, I confess to somewhat similar behaviour with you, when I came across your recent post on Eklavya, as I had made a hasty assumption (before seeing your previous posts on other mainstream Hindi movies) that you wouldn't be caught dead at one, so shame on me...

  14. I never did like the Pet Shop boys. That tinny electronic sounding music (Jwock, you can hum the tunes? I bow to you!). Those inane lyrics. And (gasp!) not even a dance beat worth jiving to!

    I went back to listen to them after reading about them here. Sorry! My heart certainly doesn't vibrate to their electronic string. But then again, I spent the early 90s desperately in love with Kurt & George (Michael, he of the newly slick "Killer/Papa was a Rolling Stone) and of course for sheer good looks there was always Seal. And now there's Justin!!!


  15. yes i lke your psb and really intersted in it

  16. Interesting how the somewhat sentimental Wendy Cope poem borrows the Pet Shop Boys' song title, "Being Boring", for a poem celebrating suburban domesticity - exactly what the PSB song is about escaping from.

  17. I was surprised in a similar way when I heard Metallica wanted The Chemical Brothers to remix "Enter Sandman".

    We all have those phases of insularity - at least I used to have one. I guess it's part of the excitement of discovering stuff. And of course, there are the wannabes too.

    But I think music sharing has, to a very great extent, broken those barriers. The bad part is that you find the same set of songs on everyone's computer or MP3 player.

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